Tillerson signs $6.4bn funding package with Jordan

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Khaled Elfiqi/Pool photo via AP)
Updated 14 February 2018
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Tillerson signs $6.4bn funding package with Jordan

AMMAN: The US’ work on a new Middle East peace plan is “fairly well advanced,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday during a visit to Jordan to sign a five-year $6.4 billion aid package.
Tillerson said President Donald Trump would decide when to announce the peace plan. But he provided no details on the initiative, which comes amid deep Palestinian skepticism about US intentions.
The US infuriated even its Arab allies in December when Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and initiated the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not cooperate with the US in its efforts as a mediator.
“I have seen the (administration’s peace) plan... It’s been under development for a number of months. I have consulted with them on the plan, identified areas that we feel need further work. I will say it’s fairly well advanced...” Tillerson said.
There has been little detail on the plan so far. Officials told Reuters in December it would deal with all major issues, including Jerusalem, borders, security, the future of Jewish settlements on occupied land and the fate of Palestinian refugees, and would also urge Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to provide significant financial support to the Palestinians.
The plan is being crafted by a team led by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, both of whom have traveled to key regional capitals since the Trump administration came to office.
Palestinians have grown increasingly concerned that any plan Trump unveils will shortchange them, a fear exacerbated by his move on Jerusalem, which upended decades of US policy that the status of the ancient city must be decided in negotiations.
Jerusalem is home to sites holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Jordanian King Abdullah’s Hashemite dynasty is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites, making Amman particularly sensitive to any changes of status there. 
The king has warned that Trump’s decision could undermine stability and fuel radicalism.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi reiterated on Wednesday that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the “only solution we believe can work.”
The Trump administration has said it would back a two-state solution if the parties agreed to it.
Trump had threatened to cut off financial aid to countries that backed a UN resolution calling for Washington to reverse its Jerusalem decision. Jordan backed the resolution.
But the Trump administration has courted King Abdullah, a moderate pro-Western Arab leader whose kingdom has long upheld US interests in the region.
On Tuesday, Tillerson met the king at his residence where the two emphasized strong US-Jordanian ties.
Commenting on the memorandum of understanding signed for $6.375 billion in aid, the US State Department said: “(It) highlights the pivotal role Jordan plays in helping foster and safeguard regional stability and supports US objectives such as the global campaign to defeat ISIS (Daesh), counter-terrorism cooperation, and economic development.”
Conflicts in neighboring Syria and Iraq have damaged Jordan’s economy, forcing it to borrow heavily from external and domestic sources. Jordan has been an important part of the US-led coalition battling Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Tillerson is also expected this week to visit Turkey, with which US ties have become badly strained over Washington’s support for the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, regarded by Ankara as a terrorist group.
Tillerson said Washington had to “find a way to continue to work in the same direction.”
He also expressed concern over Saturday’s confrontation between Israel and “Iranian assets” in Syria. Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli F-16 jet after it bombed a site used by Iran-backed forces in Syria.
Tillerson said Iran should withdraw its forces and militias from Syria, where Tehran backs President Bashar Assad.
Responding to the comments, a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, said Iran’s military presence in Syria was legitimate and based on an invitation from Damascus. He called on US forces to leave Syria.


Turkey-backed fighters await ‘zero hour’ to attack Syria’s Manbij

Updated 53 min 6 sec ago
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Turkey-backed fighters await ‘zero hour’ to attack Syria’s Manbij

  • The YPG fear the US withdrawal will open the way for a threatened Turkish attack into northern Syria
  • The YPG have also left Manbij but retain influence over the Kurdish-allied groups

JARABLUS, SYRIA: Opposition commander Adnan Abu Faisal and his army are encamped near the frontline in northern Syria, waiting to launch an offensive on his home city of Manbij.

But they are not the ones who will decide whether to march on the strategically important city, held for more than two years by Kurdish forces supported by the US.

The decision will depend on Turkey, the main backer of Abu Faisal’s group, and on how contacts evolve between Washington and Ankara over the US plans to withdraw forces from Syria, a move set to reshape a major theater of the war.

The US and Turkey are allies both in the NATO defense alliance and in the fight against Daesh, but Ankara sees the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces that helped the US-led coalition drive Daesh out of Manbij in 2016 as a security threat.

The YPG fear the US withdrawal will open the way for a threatened Turkish attack into northern Syria, including Manbij, but US President Donald Trump has warned Turkey of “economic devastation” if it goes ahead with the attack.

Abu Faisal’s fighters are awaiting orders near Jarablus, a town held by Turkey and its Syrian opposition allies about 35 km south of Manbij. The frontline in the area runs through open farmland where wheat and corn are usually grown.

“We are ready with our forces ... for ‘zero hour’ to begin any military action,” Abu Faisal, whose forces have more than 300 vehicles including pickup trucks and armored vehicles provided by Turkey, told Reuters.

“Preparations are going at full speed,” he said.

Abu Faisal, 36, was an army captain before Syria’s civil war began in 2011 but defected from the Syrian Army in 2012 to join the fight against Bashar Assad.

Abu Faisal helped wrest control of Manbij from the Syrian Army early in the conflict but fled when it was seized by Daesh in 2014 and has not set foot there since then.

The YPG have also left Manbij but retain influence over the Kurdish-allied groups that hold the city 30 km from the border with Turkey.

Manbij lies near the junction of three separate blocks of territory that form spheres of Russian, Turkish and, for now, US influence.

The US military pullout will not only leave Kurds exposed to possible confrontation with Turkey but will also open the way for the expansion of Russian and Iranian sway into the areas that US forces will be leaving.

The US military deployed into Syria as part of the fight against Daesh but officials later indicated wider objectives included containing Iran, Assad’s main regional ally. 

Late last month, the YPG called on Assad’s forces to protect Manbij from attack by Turkey. Syrian government forces, which are backed by Russia, answered the YPG appeal by deploying outside Manbij.

Abu Faisal’s fighters, backed by Turkish forces, made their own advance toward the city the same day but stopped short of an attack.